Watch a team every day and the flaws come into sharper focus and obscure the strengths. Every fan base has issues with the lineup construction and the bullpen decisions and all beat writers get tired of listening to the manager’s talking points. But sometimes you have to take the 30,000-foot view.
Anthony Rizzo did that on Tuesday afternoon, sending a message through the reporters crowded around his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. The Cubs first baseman made the point that getting swept by the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend didn’t really change the big picture for the defending World Series champs.
“We’re in first place,” Rizzo said. “Every single person standing here right now is overlooking that. I think where we’re at right now is an unbelievable position that we can’t take for granted.”
Just ask the New York Mets, a broken-down team that no longer resembles the group of players who celebrated here after sweeping the Cubs out of the 2015 National League Championship Series.
Just look at the injured Mets out for the season – Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, David Wright, Michael Conforto, Wilmer Flores, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler – and it became a good time to play this card before an 8-3 win that held off the St. Louis Cardinals (2 games out) and Brewers (2.5 games back) for another night.
“I think everyone needs to start rallying around us even more now,” Rizzo said, “instead of maybe panicking a little bit, because this is the time where we’re going to get hot these next three weeks and raise that banner again next year, hopefully.”
Not sure if Rizzo had a specific tweet, headline or talk show in mind – or what someone from his entourage might have heard – but the Cubs have spent each of the last 48 days atop the NL Central and the overall theme of the coverage has been saying this franchise could become a dynasty and waiting for this team to finally take control of a weak division.
Maybe Rizzo just senses the cynicism as someone who planted roots in Chicago and remains the only player left from the 97-loss team in 2012, or Year 1 for the Theo Epstein administration.
It’s also the middle of September and manager Joe Maddon is still tinkering with his lineup, waiting to see a more mature approach from certain hitters, giving daily medical updates and talking about the fatigue from playing into early November last year.
“It’s there,” Maddon said. “To deny that would be disingenuous on my part. It is true and I think our guys have done a great job – not a good job – during the course of this season. Primarily because I’ve not heard anybody make excuses. I know they’ve been tired and I’ve tried to rest them (and) I can tell it’s mental fatigue as much as it is physical fatigue.
“For the hardcore hardliners that don’t want to hear that, that’s fine. But it’s true. It is part of the human element. It’s part of what we do. (So) right now, you need to trust your guys more than anything. It’s not time to experiment or try new methods or whatever. Let your guys play and trust them. These are great athletes. It’s a tightly knit group.
“It’s great to be in this position. Now we got to figure out how to do it.”
The Cubs can be a boom-or-bust offense and this lineup is far easier to navigate than last year’s version. Jake Arrieta will miss this weekend’s showdown against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field as he recovers from a strained right hamstring and the Cubs don’t really know when their Cy Young Award winner will be ready to rejoin the rotation. The bullpen is in flux – because bullpens are always in flux – but All-Star closer Wade Davis (29-for-29 in save chances) is as good as it gets.
In the end, it won’t matter how the Cubs got into the playoffs – as long as they get there.
“The guys in the clubhouse understand it,” Rizzo said. “We’ve dealt with the outside noise. It’s about being professional and handling it the right way. But I told them: Take the positives out of everything to this point – where we are coming from after the greatest championship in sports history – and in the position to win the division again.”